WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia on Friday sharply rejected American calls for gestures toward Israel, a central component of US efforts to pave the way for peace talks.
"Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and - we believe - will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at a State Department press conference.
"What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security."
Yet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who appeared alongside Saud following their meeting Friday afternoon, downplayed his comments and the extent to which the attitude damages the US's Arab-Israeli peace program.
Asked repeatedly whether Saud's comments made America's efforts more difficult, Clinton responded, "No, I don't think so at all."
Instead, she said, "I think that the efforts we are undertaking are to create a negotiation that will lead to a comprehensive settlement in the interests of both the Palestinian and the Israeli people," and indicated that Saud's perspective was in line with that.
To that end, US Mideast Envoy George Mitchell has been meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab officials in an effort to restart talks. The US has demanded a settlement freeze from Israel and that Palestinians stop incitement against Israel and continue security reforms, but have also repeatedly called for Arab countries to take steps to indicate they are serious about peace and are moving towards normalizing ties with Israel.
The Arab Peace Initiative, of which Saudi Arabia was the chief architect and which Saud endorsed again at the press conference, promises Israel full normalization in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in 1967 as well as resolutions on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
But both Israel and the US, which has praised the Arab initiative as a positive move, would like to see some steps taken now as a show of goodwill that could encourage the Israeli public to make difficult compromises.
US officials have spoken of the possibility of Arab countries opening up trade missions with Israel, allowing Israeli aircraft overflight rights and granting tourist visas to Israelis.
But Saud charged, "Israel is trying to distract by shifting attention from the core issue - an end to the occupation that began in '67 and the establishment of a Palestinian state - to incidental issues such as academic conferences and civil aviation matters. This is not the way to peace."
He also indicated that Israel's adherence to a settlement freeze would not change his position.
"A settlement freeze Israel has refused," he said. "And this is why we believe that making conditions right for a settlement is not by making gestures. It is by delving into the real issues."
Saud, however, did praise the US intensification of diplomacy in the region and suggested that "a bold and historic step" from the United States would be helpful.
Indeed, several Arab leaders have been urging the US to present its own initiative, though so far the US efforts have focused on pressing for the incremental moves Saud rejected in order to create a new dynamic.
The US push for a total settlement freeze is part of this program, with the US expectation being that such a dramatic move would enable the Saudis and other Arab states to take the steps they are now resisting.
Israel has so far agreed to some limits on settlement activity but has rebuffed calls for a halt to "natural growth," or all construction in existing settlements. Reports indicate, however, that Mitchell is hammering out a deal whereby Israel would be able to continue certain projects which have already been started while stopping all others.
He has met with top Israeli leaders over the past few weeks and Clinton, who declined to discuss the details of such a deal at the press conference, did say that "we feel like we're making headway."
Meanwhile some 224 members of Congress have signed a letter to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah calling for precisely the measures that Saud rejected and chastising the country for its stance.
"In his address to the Muslim world in Cairo, President Barack Obama called on Arab states to live up to their responsibility and recognize Israeli legitimacy," reads the letter, which was co-sponsored by Brad Sherman (D-California) and whose bipartisan co-signatories including leading members of House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"We have been disappointed thus far to see the public reaction of your government to President Obama's request. Rather than expressing willingness to break down barriers between Arabs and Israelis, your foreign minister asserted that Saudi Arabia could not take any step toward normalization before the return of all Arab land."
The missive also refers to the overtures to Israel made by Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the latter of whom visited Jerusalem before signing a peace treaty with Israel.
"We urge you to assert a strong leadership role and help lead the Middle East to a new era of peace and reconciliation by stepping forward with a dramatic gesture toward Israel akin to the steps taken earlier by the leaders of Egypt and Jordan," the letter states.
"We believe that such a step on your part can help open the door to a better future and will reinforce the initiative undertaken by President Obama in Cairo."